In the past 30 years, average critical reading scores on the SAT have nosedived. Meanwhile, the average GPA among high school students has skyrocketed, and the test-prep industry has ballooned to a $4 billion market.
You don’t need an SAT tutor to tell you those numbers don’t add up. But I do want to use my experience in the industry to dismiss the usual self-serving explanations for these discrepancies and provide the most objective insight possible.
Along with a secondary school report, high schools across the country have to submit a school profile to every college their seniors apply to each year. Among other metrics, this document displays the average SAT/ACT scores or middle 25th to 75th percentile range among graduating seniors, providing colleges with a contextual understanding of each applicant’s academic performance.
It’s no surprise that schools with impressive stats link to the document on their websites and schools that don’t refuse to share it with the public. The reasoning is straight-forward: why let parents judge the quality of a school’s education by a test that isn’t central to its academic focus (unless, of course, it makes the school look good)?
These decisions are strategic. But they also create misconceptions about what SAT scores actually mean. Imagine being a parent of a high school student and watching report card after report card of stellar grades come in, solidifying your conception of your kid as a good student. And then, WHAM! Your kid takes the SAT and doesn’t do so hot. Suddenly, she becomes a great student who isn’t good at standardized testing.
The discrepancy usually leads to unfounded assumptions rather than careful analysis. We often point to the SAT as an unfair barrier to college. The opposite is also true: students who do well are more than happy with their scores’ “proof” of their intelligence and impact on their college admissions prospects.
The reality is the SAT isn’t really about intelligence or your success in high school. It tests skills you “should have” developed as a by-product of a high school education. The problem is, with reading especially, kids aren’t developing these skill sets—not because of poor instruction, but because they aren’t putting in the time independently to refine them. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percent of students who never or hardly read for pleasure increased from 8 percent to 27 percent from 1984 to 2012. In short, fewer and fewer students identify as readers anymore.
This trend has paralleled the exponential growth in high school students’ use of technology. Which seems to point to a well-researched conclusion: your brain adapts to become good at whatever you devote time to. As a result, the billions of dollars spent on test prep are typically billions of dollars spent too late, when parents finally realize the hours spent on Instagram and Xbox really should have been devoted to reading. Instead of prepping for a test, high school students need focused attention on building the skills of critical analysis throughout high school.
In other words, the discrepant trends in average GPA and critical reading scores may be a result of an obvious reality, but solving this problem involves navigating the complicated landscape of the status quo in secondary education and the daily lives of high school students.
In my next article, I’ll discuss the multiple pivots we’ve had to make with our web app SmartyReader in tackling this challenging mission.